As we approached the final event of Dundee Literary Festival 2013, we charged our glasses and toasted 40 years of Canongate. Originally founded by Stephanie Wolf Murray, Canongate was brought back from the brink in 1994 by current publisher and managing director, Jamie Byng, who is now still at the helm of the company. At the modest venue of the Bonar Hall, publishing director Francis Bickmore presented Matt Haig and Richard Holloway to discuss life before Canongate, their individual writing journeys and their newest publications.
So what exactly do Canongate look for in a book? Bickmore observed that the house are “looking for a thing [that]we don’t know what we’re looking for yet”. This comment might represent so wide scope that makes Canongate seem almost catholic or “Pentecostal” (Bickmore’s wording). Yet as the panel authors were introduced, we have a sensed of the variety of individual styles that make up the company’s output.
October marked Matt Haig’s 12th year as a published writer, and with it he offered up his second Canongate novel, The Humans. While no longer having to fear the pressures that a debut novel brings, Haig seemed a little worried about its reception. He admited as much on his website: “I put absolutely everything I had into it so if people don’t like it then they don’t like me.”
A seemingly comical narrative on human life, with the obvious disillusionment regarding our own race thrown in for good measure, Haig’s book joined Holloway’s to compete in the stakes of “knowing-a-little-too-much” about life and also struggling to deal with the consequences. The fact that Haig’s protagonist is an alien trapped in a Cambridge Maths Professor’s body is by the bye; the sentiment remains the same.
Leaving Alexandria: A memoir of Faith and Doubt is a close inspection of Holloway’s personal battle with his own beliefs and with Christianity. At the session, he humbly recounted the tale of his struggle, which led him in 2000 to resign from his position as Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Keen to emphasise a personal distinction between memoir and autobiography, there is, he noted, more creativity within the former: Leaving Alexandria is more self-exploration than self-justification.
Holloway found Canongate when he was approached to pen the introduction to the Gospel of Luke for the Canongate Canons, a publication of the individual books of the King James Bible in a small pocket book format. Working alongside Canongate then was a natural progression, but Holloway confirmed that it wasn’t always so simple. With the publisher Collins, he worked under 9 editors in 6 months and thus is a great advocate of the bond between writer and editor. Haig would concur; his experience with Jonathan Cape did not provide much room for Haig’s distinctive writing but Canongate’s openness/electicism did.
Since 2010, Canongate’s papers have been collected at the University of Dundee. The archive, containing correspondence between writer and publisher goes back to 1981, and includes material by Alistair Gray and, most recently, correspondence between Holloway and his editor, Nick Davies.
What can we expect from the future of books? “All my sentences are now 140 characters long”, Haig joked about Twitter formatting; however, he still believed in a cyclical route of books: from paper, to electronic, and back around to the tangible – electronic paper and conductive ink. Holloway did not dismiss Ebooks either and indeed, each author has an ebook edition with Canongate. However, for Holloway, books would forever remain collectables, and bookshops “a threatened glory”.
In closing the hour’s discussion, Bickmore admited to some sort of “fetishism of the physical object of the book”, and the serendipity of walking into a book shop and not knowing what you want. This is exactly how Canongate feel about their authors. Let’s hope Canongate discover many more hidden treasures and we wish them all the success in the written world.
Happy Birthday, Canongate.